The Master

Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, and Ambyr Childers

It's been awhile since we've seen Paul Thomas Anderson at work.  It's been five years since Daniel Day-Lewis struck oil in Anderson's There Will Be Blood.  Now, Anderson has returned to the big screen with The Master, an ambitious, challenging masterpiece.  Featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, the film delves into the life of a traumatized military veteran who finds himself in a cult after returning to the United States.  This cult is very loosely based on the origins of Scientology and the life of L. Ron Hubbard.

Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is a veteran of World War II who has just returned home from fighting overseas.  Because of his traumatic experiences, he now has a nervous condition.  Because of his often erratic behavior, Quell is a drifter moving from one job to the next.  Having been fired from his job as a photographer in a department store after assaulting a customer and having fled his job as a day laborer after poisoning his boss with his “special cocktail”, Quell ends up wandering onto a ship.  There he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), an intellectual leading a cult that's beginning to gain traction around the country.  As his religious movement begins taking off, Dodd takes Quell under his wing and tries to help him overcome his condition.  Meanwhile, Freddie inspires Dodd to continue working on book two about his movement, Split Saber.

Paul Thomas Anderson has done it yet again.  The Master is an outstanding motion picture that challenges moviegoers from start to finish, and I'm not just saying this because I love movies about crazy people.  Because Anderson doesn't spoon-feed us anything, we have no choice but to completely immerse ourselves in The Master and lose all sense of time and space.  When you're watching this movie, you're watching greatness on the big screen.  Nothing else matters.

Anderson is a master at creating period pieces.  Taking place in the 1950s, The Master has a certain authenticity that makes it feel like this era.  You can see it in the excellent set and costume design and in the dark, somewhat grainy cinematography that evokes a sense of an earlier period.  You can hear it in the incredible score put together by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood; this guy has clearly studied the classics and gives us some great tunes.  You can feel it in the drinking culture of the era whereby there's nothing wrong with tossing back a few alcoholic beverages during the work day.  Freddie and Lancaster knock back a few of Freddie's cocktails of death (light liquors, dark liquors, and any random liquids in Freddie’s vicinity such as paint thinner).  The point of it all is that Anderson takes us back in time in grand style.

While there is no such thing as bad acting in The Master, there are a few standouts I would like to discuss.  As Freddie Quell, Joaquin Phoenix is simply magnificent.  He truly convinces me that he is insanity personified.  While his ever-changing facial expressions, his awkward body language, and his violent tendencies all highlight how dynamic Phoenix is on screen and how unstable his character Freddie Quell truly is, it's all in the eyes.  Whenever Anderson just leaves the camera focused on a facial shot of Phoenix, his eyes are what disturb me most.  There's an intangible, unpredictable darkness to Phoenix's eyes when he's playing Freddie.  Because of this, he just oozes with insanity.  With this towering performance, Joaquin Phoenix joins the ranks of the greats of all time in my opinion.  This is his finest hour so far as an actor. 

As Lancaster Dodd, Philip Seymour Hoffman is no slouch either.  There are many sides to his performance.  In playing the master and head of this new spiritual movement, Hoffman has to offer a calmer, cooler character.  At the same time however, he can give a fiery performance and go toe-to-toe with Phoenix's Freddie.  Hoffman can be the caring father and friend.  He can be the obstinate cult leader that dictates what his followers believe without question.  He can even be the weak husband who does exactly what his wife says.  All in all, I've rarely seen Hoffman better on screen.  He's at the top of his game in The Master.

It seems that we're getting a double dose of Amy Adams in theaters.  The Trouble with the Curve star is also portraying Lancaster Dodd's wife Peggy in The Master.  In my review of the former, I mentioned that she portrays a strong character.  I'm happy to say that she portrays a strong female character in a different way in The Master.  At first, she appears to be this innocent wife in the background, but her character Peggy Dodd gradually becomes a force to be reckoned with.  She seems to be a powerful puppeteer within the cult who has significant influence over Lancaster.  Though rarely given, it feels like her opinion is the only one that matters in the room.  Delivering a starkly different performance from our two leads, Adams does so much with so little in a restrained but equally impressive performance.

The Master is a modern cult classic and is one of the best films of the year.  With brilliant direction from Paul Thomas Anderson and career-defining performances from his stellar cast, greatness is personified on the big screen in this film.  The Master gets a sober rating.